"The unweary, unostentatious, and inglorious crusade of England against slavery" - The West Africa Squadron

28 August 1833, Royal assent was given to the Act of Parliament abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire.

"The unweary, unostentatious, and inglorious crusade of England against slavery may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations.“ (W.H.W Lecky)

Montague Dawson (1895-1973): 'Chasing the slaver': Her Majesty's brig Acorn in chase of the piratical slaver Gabriel, 6th July 1841*  

Slavery as such was unsupported in English law, but remained legal, not in England, but in her colonies. By the end of the 18th century, resistance around William Wilberforce begun to form against human trafficking in earnest. Calling themselves “The Saints”, the abolitionists slowly gained influence against the opposition of the richest people in the Empire, merchant bankers from Liverpool and slave-owning planters from the West Indies whose commercial success was based on forced labour and financed whole industries. The persistence of Wilberforce and his Saints prevailed though and in 1807, at least the trade with humans was forbidden, while Napoleon implicitly tolerated it. 

H.M. Brig Black Joke, tender to HMS Sybille and prizes**

It was probably a mixture of decency and economical pressure that forced the hand of the British Government to persuade Britain’s allies to suppress the trade as well, Portugal confining it to its own colonies since 1810, Sweden in 1813, the Netherlands as well the French in 1814 and the Spanish finally in 1820 – nonetheless, a small squadron of fast warships left England in 1807 for West Africa to prevent the French from taking over the immensely lucrative transatlantic triangular trade and capturing slavers in situ, among them many English merchantmen sailing under all sorts of colours. After the war with the United States and France ended in 1815, the “West African Squadron” had to be increased in numbers, because the now mostly illegal trade drew smugglers like flies. By 1850, 25 men-of-war and more than 2.000 officers and men served on the West African Station, one of the most unpopular in the whole service because of the risks to the health and the rather underdeveloped medical facilities and know-how to treat tropical diseases. Mortality reached in some years 50% of the crews, but during the 60 years it took to suppress the triangular trade, the Royal Navy captured 1.600 slave ships and freed 150.000 people, one of the most celebrated peace-time actions and certainly one of the most noble.

 A watercolour by Commander Henry Need of HMS “Linnet”, a brig serving in the West African Squadron, showing her boats capturing the slaver brigantine “Paulina” on the River Ponga, somewhere in West Africa (1853). ***

The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 finally outlawed the keeping of slaves in the Empire, not only the human trafficking, although the territories in possession of the Honourable East India Company were exempted for another ten years, but, by and large, with the Act becoming effective on 1 August 1834. Slave-owners were compensated with the princely sum of 20 Million Pounds Sterling, more than £14,800,000,000 considering average incomes, far more than governments paid as compensation for the abolition of serfdom on the continent. Nonetheless, an important step in the final attempt to outlaw slavery throughout the world had been taken.

* Image found on http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/paintings/montague-dawson-rsma-frsa-chasing-the-slaver-5387508-details.aspx

** H.M. Brig Black Joke, tender to HMS Sybille and prizes, Spanish brig Providentia, Brazilian brig Vengador Buenos Ayrean privateer Presidente brigantine El Hassey Spanish brig El Almirante and brigantine Marianna, by Irwin Bevan, in the possession of the National Maritime Museum (1827, description found on wikipedia)

*** The picture was found along with other excellent watercolours by Need on http://shissem.com/Hissem_Thornton-Heyshams.html

And more about The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 on